Three seasons ago, when the Thunder clinched its first Northwest Division title, it was viewed as a huge milestone for the burgeoning franchise.
“It's great for our fans,” coach Scott Brooks said at the time. “It's great for our city to be division champs. It is definitely a step in our process.”
Two years and two division titles later, the feat has become little more than a formality. Just a nice footnote in the season's bigger picture.
This isn't the MLB, where playoff spots are fewer, or the NFL, where postseason byes are offered. So the importance of division championships in the NBA is dwarfed.
But they still come with a guaranteed top-four finish in the conference and bragging rights within the division.
And for the Thunder, which enters camp later this week in search of a fourth straight Northwest crown, the path has never looked easier.
ESPN has a forecast tool on its website, predicting the expected records of teams for the upcoming season.
In it, they have the Thunder at 58-24, two games off last season's pace but still atop the Western Conference. Beyond that, there's not another team from the Northwest until the seventh slot, where a retooled Denver Nuggets club, which lost its highly respected coach (George Karl) and only All-Star (Andre Iguodala), is projected at 43-39. That's a 15-game gap between the Thunder and everyone else in the division.
The West's other five expected contenders (Spurs, Grizzlies and Rockets in the Southwest, Clippers and Warriors in the Pacific) have at least one other team that should battle for division supremacy. OKC doesn't.
Here's a closer examination of the division, revealing why the Thunder are so heavily favored entering the year:
Oklahoma City Thunder
Key additions: Steven Adams, Andre Roberson
Key losses: Kevin Martin
ESPN projected record: 58-24, 1st in West
Outlook: Lost a bench scorer in Kevin Martin, promoted a potential replacement in 21-year-old sharpshooter Jeremy Lamb. Other than that, OKC remains essentially the same, maintaining a dynamic roster that's highlighted by two transcendent superstars and an emerging shotblocker, all one year closer to their prime.
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